|By Sumathi Reddy, The Baltimore
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Feb. 10, 2007 - Despite a publicly financed Hilton convention hotel set to open next year, Baltimore's major convention business appears to be declining, prompting concern among officials for the city's investment.
Numbers released yesterday show that the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association has booked for 2008 a little more than a third the number of groups that it did in 2005, grim figures for a business in which groups usually book five to 10 years in advance.
Similarly, the number of hotel room nights booked for Convention Center conferences from 2005 to 2008 decreased by more than 70 percent, from 254,126 to 72,231. The hotel is slated to open in August of 2008.
The figures, which BACVA officials presented to area general managers yesterday, show that 28 groups booked conventions at the center in 2005, compared with 10 for 2008, and nine each for 2009 and 2010. Seven more groups, translating to 38,195 hotel nights, have committed to come to Baltimore in 2008 but have not signed contracts. Five more groups, with 44,766 hotel nights, are possibilities, officials said.
BACVA Executive Director Thomas J. Noonan acknowledged that the convention center faces a "situation," which he hopes to turn around as the newly appointed leader of a quasi-governmental tourism agency that has experienced several turbulent turns in recent years.
Noonan took over the helm at BACVA in January, replacing Leslie R. Doggett, who resigned in May after several months' absence, offering health and family reasons. Doggett had been chosen in 2003 to turn around an agency whose previous leader was fired after the discovery that bookings and membership numbers were inflated.
"I'm seeing a decrease in bookings and wanted to make the community aware of that," Noonan said in an interview. "However, we have a couple of strategies."
Chief among them is hiring an employee based in New York to focus on luring more corporate and pharmaceutical conventions, which tend to plan conferences within an 18-month window, Noonan said. Additionally, BACVA will hire another sales manager in Baltimore to focus on smaller conferences.
And Noonan hopes to work with similarly sized cities in getting convention managers to book three-city tours. "Why not work together and say, 'If you book all three of our cities for future years you're going to get discounts at our centers'?" Noonan said.
Noonan said he hopes to have the two new employees on board by April.
The news was worrisome to city officials who have voiced concerns about the city's financing a $301 million hotel with 757 rooms to fill.
"There was a lot of rosy projections during that hotel debate about how if you build it they will come," said Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a mayoral candidate. "And you know, I always said it was a risky venture for the city to be getting involved in the hotel business."
"I've always been worried about it," he added. "The convention business is a tough business, especially for mid-tier cities like Baltimore sandwiched in between Boston, D.C. and Philadelphia."
City Councilman James B. Kraft, another skeptic during the debate on a city-financed hotel, said he was "disappointed" to hear the numbers. "The numbers were down last quarter, and this is not a good sign," Kraft said. "I hope it's not a trend.
But despite his resistance to the idea, Kraft said that now that the hotel is a reality, he, along with every other city leader, needs to step up to sell Baltimore "It's easy to say, 'I told you so,'" he said. "But the bottom line with this is, if it doesn't work, then we gotta pick up the tab. The last thing we need is to have another bill to pay."
Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said the administration is working closely with BACVA to recruit larger conventions to Baltimore. Dixon's long-term goal is to get eight to 10 large conventions a year, defined as at least 3,000 rooms on a peak night.
On the positive side, Noonan pointed to rising figures for the number of hotel rooms booked in recent fiscal years. Such figures include rooms booked for that year but mostly for future years. They also include conventions held at other locations in the city.
"So the good news is we're booking more business for down the road," Noonan said.
"Get in on it" -- the city's newest tourism marketing campaign, which is designed to attract Mid-Atlantic-area tourists for short trips -- will not be affected.
Most area hotel general managers interviewed yesterday said they have been aware of the decline in business for some time and expressed confidence in the new strategies and direction that Noonan is taking.
"The fact of the matter is 2008 doesn't look great," said Meade Atkeson, general manager of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. "I'd say that we have enough time to turn around 2008 and 2009. There's a certain amount of business that books for the city even one, two, three years" in advance, "and certainly for hotels" that's the case, he said.
Alex Bollman, general manager of Brookshire Suites, said he was impressed that Noonan himself was making sales calls to people in Washington. "It sounds like he has a very good pulse for what needs to be done in order to fill those gaps," Bollman said.
Still, Bollman noted that there will be about 1,800 rooms coming up in the next few years with planned downtown construction. "We need to fill those hotels up," he said.
Gail Smith-Howard, general manager at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore and a BACVA board member, said now is an appropriate time to "catch up to some of the ills of the past."
"We kind of saw this train coming," she said. "I think it's important that they're trying to put action steps in place to cover these deficits. Hopefully, five, six, seven years from now the city will be on a strong foot because they've created a base which really should have happened a long time ago."
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership and a BACVA board member, said that because of the changes BACVA experienced in 2006, it's not surprising that it lost momentum.
"Tom Noonan has his work cut out for him, but he comes with rave reviews and we have high hopes that he'll be able to attract more and more conventions," Fowler said.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Baltimore Sun
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